William Arthur McCrae Bruce
Lieutenant William Arthur McCrae Bruce (1890-1914) was the grandson of the Laird of Symbister, William Arthur Bruce (1799-1865). Lieutenant Bruce was born in Edinburgh on 15 June 1890. His mother, Margaret Hay, connected him to the Hay family who built the Shetland firm of Hay and Company. His father, Andrew, was born in Dunrossness in 1842, and resided at Symister in his youth. A product of the Shetland diaspora, his son was never to be a permanent resident in Shetland.
Andrew forged a career in the Indian Army, rising to Lieutenant Colonel. Later on he was to settle in Jersey. His son was to follow him abroad, after education at Victoria College, Jersey, and Sandhurst. Going to India in 1909, he joined the Northumberland Fusiliers and learned Urdu.
By 1911 he was with the 59th Scinde Rifles. They were a well-thought of frontier force originating in the Punjab, maintaining security on the northwest frontier. A young man joining the Rifles could expect adventure and a certain amount of action. In 1908 the regiment had taken part in a punitive action against the Zakka Kahl clan of the Afridi branch of the Pathan people. The regiment was multi-ethnic, made up of Pathans, Sikhs, Dogras, and Punjabi Muslims. European officers numbered in the teens.
The Indian Army mobilised in aid of the small British Expeditionary Force in France on 8 August 1914. The first units embarked for there on 24 August. The Scinde Rifles reached Marseilles on 26 September. Lieutenant Bruce joined them from home leave at Cairo on 16 September. They were enthusiastically welcomed on landing in France. Herbert Alexander wrote about it in his book, On Two Fronts (1917).
… streets lined with the good folk of Marseilles, who clapped their hands, cheering vociferously and shouting, “Vive l’Angleterre”, and “Vivent Les Hindous”…
The British Expeditionary Force was hard-pressed as 1914 ended. It was suffering continual, heavy, casualties. The new volunteer army was not fully on stream. The Indian troops made a huge, and little known contribution to keeping the British in the field, despite being poorly kitted out for the European winter. By December, Lieutenant Bruce was in the fighting at Givenchy, La Bassée.
When the Scinde Rifles left France, few of the men who landed there remained. The British element (13) among the officers had been wiped out. On the 20th December 1914 McCrae Bruce became one of those casualties. His body was never found, and what happened was only clearly established when prisoners of war returned. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously. The London Gazette, 2 September, 1919, said:
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. On the 19th December, 1914, near Givenchy, during a night attack, Lt. Bruce was in command of a small party which captured one of the enemy’s trenches. In spite of being severely wounded in the neck, he walked up and down the trench, encouraging his men to hold on against several counter-attacks for some hours until killed. The fire from rifles and bombs was very heavy all day, and it was due to the skilful disposition made, and the example and encouragement show by Lt. Bruce that his men were able to hold out until dusk, when the trench was finally captured by the enemy.
He had had a short but successful career as an officer. His unit clearly had considerable esprit de corps. They had refused an order to withdraw from Havildar, [Sergeant] Dost Mohammed, saying that Lieutenant Bruce had said to hold out to the end.
He had distinguished himself, and has been commemorated since in various ways. He is noted in various books about the Indian Army. General Sir James Willcocks noted him in his book With the Indians in France (1920).
Lieutenant W A McCrae-Bruce by his personal disregard of danger set a splendid example which kept his men together in the turmoil.
His old school, Victoria College, bought his VC and now has a Bruce House, named after him. In 1992, when his medal was auctioned, the college raised money and bought it. The Jersey Militia Museum now has it on display. In December 2014, he was honoured in Shetland by Shetland Islands Council Convener, Malcolm Bell, unveiling a commemorative slab at the Shetland War Memorial at Hillhead, Lerwick.